This post is not about a technical subject, but it's subject that I think affects a lot of people in the technical industry.
Someday you're going to need a friend
About a year ago my life took a turn for the not-so-happy. At that time and in the months after, I found out how blessed I am to have a large network of wonderfully supportive friends online. Many of them are people I primarily knew in a professional context, but who quickly and generously offered their time, their ears, and their words of support.
On the other hand, I also realized just how abjectly I had failed at building a local community of friends. It wasn't something I had ever prioritized, and since moving from Pennsylvania to Tennessee I'd put no energy at all into it. I realized that I was alone on a hilltop in Eastern Tennessee, without a single person I could call when I felt the need to sit and drink with a buddy late into the night.
As I've written about elsewhere, there's just no substitute for local friendships. And I think that nerds have an especially hard time building up these kinds of relationships. Historically, the tech industry has attracted a high percentage of introverts and people with social anxieties, or just general awkwardness. (Myself definitely included.) And since we spend so much time online, it's easy to put off or ignore the call of local camaraderie. Twitter, Slack, and email can feel like just the right level of remove at which to keep other humans… right up until the moment when you suddenly, desperately need a hug right now.
My progress so far
Someday I would love to write an authoritative post on the right way to build a local circle of friends. This is not that post. I am still fumbling in the dark.
But I'm making slow progress. And after writing the post I linked above, I didn't feel right just saying “go, make friends” without any pointers on how.
So here's the idea: In the spirit of Open Source, I'm going to try to think of every local friend I've made in the past year. (Note: I'm limiting it to people I've known for at least a few months, so if we met very recently and you're not on here, that's why 🙂 ) I'll try to remember exactly how we went from strangers to friends. And I'll also try to come up with some generalizable take-aways from each story.
Because there's nothing as geeky as getting technical about friendship!
The kids and I attend a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville. I met P. while we were both waiting for our kids outside one of the classrooms after service. If you've ever just looked at someone and had a feeling “I'll bet we'd get along well”, it was one of those cases. I started a brief conversation by complementing his shirt, if I recall correctly.
Later, he and I turned out to be the only two parents who showed up to be non-teacher chaperones at a church class field trip. (While I love the tolerant and diverse perspectives the kids learn at UU RE classes, I'll take any excuse to skip the services!). That gave us an opportunity to chat at greater length, and I found out he was also a programmer. At the end of that day we exchanged contact info and agreed to stay in touch.
The next step was arranging to meet for lunch via text. Since then, we've met up regularly for lunch and kid play dates, and I've come to regard him as one of my most valued local friends.
- Show up. Somewhere. Anywhere. I wouldn't have met P. if I hadn't been getting out of the house once a week to take the kids to RE classes, at a church where I personally didn't even enjoy the services, and often resented the “lost time”.
- Conversations start around kids (and dogs!). If you're in a position to take advantage of this fact, do it! Striking up a conversation while waiting for or watching your child can be a relatively painless and comfortable way to get started.
- Pay attention to your gut. Your brain is a subtle pattern-matching machine honed to identify things that are good for you, using unconscious clues. If you get a “future friend” feeling about someone, make a point to strike up a conversation.
- Be patient. When you're starting from zero, it can feel like potential friends are slipping through your fingers because you just can't figure out how to manufacture the right conversation at the right moment. Over and over again, though, I've seen people who I wanted to get to know better reappear multiple times in my life. Don't be discouraged if all you manage at first is a few words with someone. Trust that the universe (and your habit of showing up!) will put them in your path again.
In M.'s case, my extensive online social network gave me a leg up. M. is another Ruby developer who follows me online. The first time we met in person it was completely by chance. I had taken my kids to Chick-fil-A, and M. was there with his kids. He came up to me and said “hey, you're Avdi Grimm, aren't you?”
We had a nice chat about hanging out sometime, that I then completely failed to follow up on. But later he saw online that I was going through a difficult time, and contacted me to offer to hang out. I took him up on it, told my assistant “make sure he and I meet up at some point soon”, and since then we've met up for breakfast at a local diner a few times.
- Be public. If you can and if it is safe for you to do so. Long ago I came to the conclusion that the only safety net I would ever be able to rely on was a large network, and that's a big part of why I choose to be prolific online and to be transparent about what's going on with me. I know not everyone can be as public as I am, but if it's possible and within your nature to do so, don't be embarrasssed to put yourself out there.
- Follow up! If you have a serendipitous encounter, always get a phone number or an email address, and follow up! Be bold: say you'd love to get lunch, or coffee, or a beer sometime, and suggest some dates that you're free.
- Have someone to keep you on track, if necessary. This advice isn't going to apply to as many people. But just in case it's applicable: In my case, my schedule is appallingly booked most of the time and I usually feel too overwhelmed to actively seek to add new appointments to it. That's why I have a remote assistant who handles my calendar. As I said above, I recruited my her to make sure the breakfast meetup actually happened. Again, chances are you don't need this level of help with your calendar, but if you do, take the steps you need to take to make sure someone keeps you on track.
Less of a story here: I met E. on a dating site. We didn't end up dating, but after talking online for a few months we had lunch together, and since then we've met for lunch or beers several times.
- Dating sites aren't just for romance and sex. Friendships can occur as well. Corollary: consider dating to make friends first, with the possibility of something more growing out of it.
N. very generously introduced herself to me the first time I attended the local monthly goth/industrial night. Then we ran across each other again on a dating site. I had been paying less and less attention to the site, and wasn't as conversational as I could have been. Fortunately she overlooked my incivility, and the next time we ran across each other at the goth night she introduced herself again. This time I had the sense to say “hey, I'm trying to make more friends and I'm really grateful that you've been so friendly, can I get some contact info?”. We became friends on Facebook, we talk online regularly, and after many schedule conflicts finally managed to meet up for lunch and conversation recently.
- People who have the guts to walk up and say hello are treasures. Treat them like royalty, and don't let them go. Not only can they become great friends, but they are also likely to introduce you to other cool folks. And being introduced is a lot easier than meeting new friends cold.
- Yes, Facebook is good for something. There are plenty of negatives to Facebook and other online social networks. But as a way to bridge the gap between “we've met and I have contact info but I know next to nothing about them” and “I know them well enough to feel comfortable suggesting lunch”, a period of being friends on Facebook can be really helpful.
A works at a local diner I frequent. Ever since I wore a Mystery Science Theater t-shirt to the restaurant one day, we'd usually chat about our shared love of the show any time I came in.
I had a really good vibe about him, but I wasn't sure how to go from patron to friend. Finally, though, on a day that I was there without my kids, I worked up the nerve to say something along the lines of “hey, I'm trying to make more local friends, do you want to grab a beer sometime?”. I got his number, we met up for beers a couple weeks later, and just last night we went out (along with some other folks) to see the Han Solo movie.
- It's OK to just say “hey, I'm trying to make more friends”. Not that it's ever easy. But you don't have to be “cool”. You can be completely honest about where you're at.
My life as a single parent running a business has been so hectic that most of my efforts, while intentional, have been pretty ad-hoc. As I think more about the process of intentional relationship-building, one of my focuses is on being more involved in local events and meetups, in order to manufacture more serendipity. Toward that end, I recently made a list of every interest I could think of that I might find community around. It includes tech meetups, of course. But my list also includes things like hiking groups, poetry readings, open mics, and EDM music events. Your list is likely to look very different from mine, and I encourage you to sit down and write it!
I'm sure in a year I'll look back at this and laugh at how immature my friend-making skills were. But I'm pleased with myself for taking intentional action, and every time I do, I become more skilled and more comfortable with it. I hope some of these concrete details inspire you in your own efforts to build up your local circle.